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It's all about history for the artful Roger

Grand slam chase aside, Federer could surpass Vilas' 46 consecutive match wins with a title at the Pacific Life Open.

March 07, 2007|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

There was an unthinkable time -- long, long ago -- when Roger Federer struggled at Indian Wells.

He remembered losing in the first round of qualifying in 1999, and four years later on center court, watched his carefully crafted game plan, hatched with his coach, backfire spectacularly against Gustavo Kuerten in the second round.

"We knew Gustavo really enjoyed serving to the backhand," Federer said recently on a conference call. "The first 15 serves went to my forehand, so I wasn't ready." Federer laughed.

Of course, Federer recovered well after the Kuerten setback, not losing a match in this tournament since.

The Pacific Life Open starts with first-round matches on the women's side today, but Federer's march toward a heralded record in the men's game is the predominant story line.

Last week, Federer brushed past Jimmy Connors' record of 160 consecutive weeks at No. 1, and could be taking out Guillermo Vilas by the time the last ball is hit at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Vilas holds the record of 46 consecutive match wins, set in 1977, and Federer could tie it by reaching the final here and would break the mark with another title, which would be his fourth straight for this tournament. "It is actually quite funny or strange to be playing and already have broken records," Federer said. "Some call me a playing legend, even though you never are as long as you are playing. I'm not in the Hall of Fame or anything. It's a lot of fun for me because the last three or four years have been incredible."

If Federer, tied with Bjorn Borg at 41, wins his opening match at Indian Wells, he will move into a tie with John McEnroe. Ivan Lendl would be next at 44 and, lastly, Vilas.

Borg, the great man himself, spoke about Federer's artistry.

"To me, Roger Federer is the right model for anyone aspiring to be a tennis player," Borg told the Gulf News in Dubai this week. "It is such a pleasure to just watch him play. His shot-making has got better and I doubt there is any shot he cannot make in any part of the court.

"All records will tumble when it comes to Roger. He is such a complete player that I do not see anyone getting better than him for a long time from now."

Andy Murray was the last man to defeat Federer, beating him at Cincinnati in August in the second round. Murray, who won the San Jose tour stop last month, and the top-seeded Federer are in the same half of the draw at Indian Wells.

Possibly looming for Federer in the fourth round is former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who won the Las Vegas tournament on Sunday. In the quarterfinals, Federer could face last year's finalist, James Blake.

In the other half of the draw is the struggling, second-seeded Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and David Nalbandian. Nadal has not won a title since the French Open in June and his last final was his Wimbledon loss to Federer.

The top-seeded women are defending champion Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Martina Hingis, Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva. Sharapova, who defeated Dementieva in last year's final at Indian Wells, is in the same half of the draw as Hingis.

Kuznetsova is in the other half with Petrova and Dementieva and sixth-seeded Nicole Vaidisova.

First-round play on the men's side opens Friday. An interesting side note: Kuerten, the last man to beat Federer at Indian Wells, is here, needing a wild-card spot to get in.

Leave it to Federer to have taken something positive out of that loss to Kuerten in 2003.

"You know what, I said I'll take every serve the way it comes, rely on my strengths instead of thinking too much about the other guy's game," Federer said. "To be honest, I remember that match as actually being a bit of a wake-up call."

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

41 and counting

Roger Federer, above, can break Guillermo Vilas' record of 46 consecutive match victories if he wins the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells. Top five streaks:

*--* Player Wins Years Guillermo Vilas 46 1977 Ivan Lendl 44 1981-82 John McEnroe 42 1983-84 Bjorn Borg 41 1979-80 Roger Federer 41 2006-07*

*--*

Note: During Open era; *Active streak.

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